It's been many years since I interviewed the late producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, then the president of Unifrance, the key promoter of French films overseas, but I always remember a comment he made. Toscan, as everyone called him, was talking about the fate of his country's films in the world marketplace as well as in the U.S., but what he said could be applied to foreign-language cinema in general.
"If you are on a street full of hamburger shops, you finally want to eat something else. If you hear there is an old lady who prepares cassoulet in a small apartment on the second floor, you will go there, you will seek her out. In a film world where there is too much noise, French cinema is cassoulet on the second floor."
If 2013 was a year when the hamburger shops, i.e. the Hollywood studios, made better meals than usual, there was still a yearning on the part of moviegoers to taste foreign-language films, to experience other cultures, other worlds, in the way only movies can offer.
But if the yearning was there, the economics of exhibition meant that these films did not stay in theaters as long as they deserved. So, partly in celebration, partly to provide a list for those catching up at home, I'm going to highlight a scintillating 17 of the best of these efforts.
Overall, the most exciting thing about this list for me is how widely the films on it ranged over the globe, taking us from Chile to China, from Denmark to the Palestinian territories. And their directors, Hayao Miyazaki and the Taviani brothers aside, are mostly young and near the start of their careers.
More than that, many of these newer directors are taking on subjects that find their universality in incorporating the nitty-gritty specifics of their particular cultures. Two films especially stand out in that regard.
"Fill the Void," directed by Rama Burshtein, is an emotionally complex examination of a potential arranged marriage that is not only set inside Israel's ultra Orthodox world, it's made by a woman who is herself a member of that community.
"No" is an irresistible fable about the power of counterintuitive thinking directed by Pablo Lorrain; inspired by a real-life Chilean plebiscite that helped end the rule of Augusto Pinochet, it is the third film of a trilogy that deals with the corrosive effects of that regime on the Chilean psyche.
The rest, in alphabetical order:
"Aftermath." A bombshell disguised as a thriller as Poland grapples with its complex World War II past.
"The Attack." Set in Israel and the Palestinian territories, a subtle and disturbing film about love, loss and tragedy.
"Caesar Must Die." Italian convicts put on their version of "Julius Caesar," and one of the most involving Shakespearean productions ever made results.
"From Up on Poppy Hill." A stunning piece of hand-drawn animation set in postwar Japan, directed by Goro Miyazaki and scripted by his legendary father, Hayao.
"The Great Beauty." Starring the peerless Toni Servillo, this examination of what is of value in life has been made stunningly and seductively cinematic by Italy's Paolo Sorrentino.
"A Hijacking." A lean, focused ultra-tense Danish thriller that puts us right in the middle of a cargo ship hijacking.
"Lore." The sufferings of World War II seen from the other side, from the point of view of abandoned children of the disgraced Nazi hierarchy.
"Our Children." A pitiless, devastating, unadorned look at the complexities of personal power dynamics inside one particular Belgian family.
"Renoir." A lush, involving film that deals not with one Renoir but two, the artist and his filmmaker son, as well as the strong-minded woman who was a key player in their lives.
"The Silence." From Germany, a complex thriller that is also a disturbing examination of guilt, violence and psychological torment.
"A Touch of Sin." A powerful work by Chinese director Jia Zhangke that's a corrosive depiction of the New China, a society still figuring out how to cope with the dehumanizing effects of unbridled capitalism.
"War Witch." Two violent years in the life of an African child soldier brilliantly conveyed.
"The Wind Rises." The great animator Hayao Miyazaki bows out with one of his most personal films.